- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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TORONTO -- With Steve Nash missing the Los Angeles Lakers' lone annual trip to Toronto to play the Raptors, Robert Sacre was left to wave the Canadian flag as his country's native son returning to home soil. Well, figuratively.
Nash, who was actually in a different part of Canada, visiting Vancouver, British Columbia for the fourth time this season to undergo a rehab session with personal trainer Rick Celebrini while the Lakers continued on their seven-game road trip Sunday, took to his Twitter account to express his remorse.
"I love playing in Toronto," Nash tweeted during the first half of the Lakers eventual 112-106 win. "It hurts more to miss this one."
While the 39-year-old Nash is the most successful player ever to come out of Canada, the 24-year-old Sacre represents the hoops movement going on north of the border.
"It’s crazy to see how much the country has improved in the game of basketball," Sacre said. "From top to bottom, there’s a name always coming out of this country."
Sacre said when he was growing up, there were only a few Canadian pro players to look up to in Nash, former All-Star and current Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire and Carl English, who played college ball at Hawaii before failing to latch on in the league after tryouts with the Indiana Pacers and Seattle Sonics.
These days, that crop of talent has exploded with a slew of top-tier NBA draft picks -- from Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson in Cleveland, to Kelly Olynyk in Boston and Andrew Nicholson in Orlando -- recently entering the league. It only promises to continue with guys like Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State), Olivier Hanlan (Boston College) and Nik Stauskas (Michigan) playing in the NCAA, to name a few.
"It’s a new breed of new athleticism coming into the game," Sacre said. "I’m just proud to say they’re Canadian."
Before there were so few Canadians to make the leap to the American basketball scene that Sacre found himself being judged against his current teammate in Nash.
"It was weird," Sacre said. "A lot of people compared me to Nash. But I’m like, ‘We play two different positions. Like, two different spectrums completely.’ But, they compared the recruiting aspect and all that. Again, I didn’t really compare myself because he’s a point guard and I’m a center, it’s two different things, but Nash has always been an inspiration for a lot of Canadians, especially for myself."
The Lakers couldn't care less about Sacre's Vancouver roots when they drafted him with the last pick of the second round, No. 60, in 2012. They were more concerned with whether the lumbering 7-foot, 260-pound center could handle the speed of the game at the next level.
"He’s improving," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "He plays well. He has a nice role in a sense of he brings energy, he anchors our defense a lot of times, he creates room underneath and I think he’ll keep getting better."
Sacre is averaging 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor in his sophomore season, up from 1.3 points and 1.1 rebounds on 37.5 percent as a rookie. He had two points and one rebound in six minutes Sunday.
"He has his little jump-shot hook that with the more confidence he gets, the better it will get and the more confidence that we have in him we’ll be able to use that," said D'Antoni. "His whole thing is he has to go in with the mindset to bring us an unbelievable amount of energy and to run the floor, to pick and dive hard, to post up when needed and he’s got to keep it right there. That’s his role. I think he does it well."
Beyond being Canadian, Sacre draws some of his identity by being an against-the-odds second round pick.
"You know, you have to go through the struggle, man," said Sacre, who is one of four second-round picks currently on the Lakers along with Steve Blake (No. 38 in 2003 by Washington), Jodie Meeks (No. 41 in 2009 by Milwaukee) and Ryan Kelly (No. 48 by the Lakers in 2013). "That’s no joke. That non-guarantee (contract) is overwhelming for a little bit."
Whereas being a first-round pick comes with a minimum of two years of guaranteed money, second-round picks usually have to prove themselves as a rookie before their deal becomes fully vested. Kelly, for instance, did not have his salary become guaranteed until he made it with the team past Jan. 7 of this season. Less than two weeks later, Kelly scored 17 points in his first start of his career against the Raptors on Sunday.
"I think second-round picks are extremely important," said D'Antoni. "You don’t hit them all the time, but if you don’t hit them, it doesn’t cost you anything and if you hit it then you got something free. Because, really, there’s not that much difference between a guy picked 10th and a guy picked 30th. It’s just the opportunity and sometimes they have more potential at 10, but if you know how to play and you work at your craft and you come in and you get a chance (to play), then you have a good chance for a second-rounder to be good. Again, that’s found money. That’s good stuff."
Unfortunately, the Lakers do not have a second-round pick in 2014 after trading theirs away in the Nash deal.
Fortunately, they have a pretty good second-rounder in Sacre, who they already have locked into a deal for the veteran's minimum next season.
It doesn't hurt that he's Canadian either, especially on a trip to Toronto.
"He got us right through customs really easily," D'Antoni joked. "It was good."